Meat chickens

The true cost of cheap chicken

Every year, over one billion chickens are slaughtered for meat in the UK. More than 90% of these chickens are bred to grow too quickly and are reared in bare, dark and overcrowded conditions. They have little room to move around freely and perform natural behaviours like perching and preening.

Our top three animal welfare concerns

When we’re out shopping we’re bombarded with offers on cheap chicken that seem too good to be true… and that’s because they are. Cheap chicken comes at the cost of the great suffering of the millions of animals bred to produce it.

1. Fast growth

The majority of chickens are bred to grow excessively fast, putting a lot of pressure on their young skeleton, muscles and organs. This can cause a lot of pain and suffering as a result of leg health issues, leading to reduced mobility, organ failures and can even result in death.

What the RSPCA standards say…

RSPCA standards only allow naturally slower-growing breeds.

2. Living conditions

Many chickens live in dark, bare and overcrowded conditions. These chickens lack the space, daylight and stimulation to move around, stay active and carry out natural behaviours. This can cause boredom, aggression and other negative behaviours, such as overeating. And this encourages weight gain that adds to the health problems already linked to fast growth rates.

What the RSPCA standards say…

RSPCA standards provide chicken more space than they get under the law or some other standards. Additionally, they insist on chickens being provided with enrichment, such as perches, hay bales and objects to peck at to provide stimulation and encourage activity. The standards also require that indoor chickens have windows for natural daylight. Additionally, free-range chickens are provided with shade and shelter, including trees and bushes, which protect them from bad weather and predators. This makes them feel safer and encourages more of them to use and benefit from the range.

3. Slaughter

Many birds in the UK are still shackled upside down by the legs whilst still alive, which can be distressing and cause injury. Also, some birds are not pre-stunned and are still conscious when they are killed.

What the RSPCA standards say…

The RSPCA’s standards do not allow chickens to be shackled as routine whilst they are still alive or to be slaughtered without being effectively stunned to ensure they are unconscious.

Farm Fact - contrary to popular belief, halal slaughter doesn’t necessarily mean that animals have not been pre-stunned. 58 per cent of certified Halal meat is from animals stunned before slaughter.

Other welfare concerns

To meet legal and other requirements as well as retail demand for different sized chickens, some birds are removed before others. But, this practice can be an incredibly stressful experience for the birds and in some cases even result in death. The RSPCA standards do not allow the routine practice of thinning.

Chickens may be caught by a single leg with several birds being carried in one hand. This often causes injuries, such as broken legs and wings, which can be very painful and distressing for the chickens. In addition to requiring that staff are trained in animal handling, the RSPCA’s standards also insist that birds are caught by both legs and no more than 3 birds may be held in each hand.

Burns and lesions
Inactivity caused by overcrowding, lack of daylight, bare environments and health problems linked to fast growth rates contribute to ammonia burns (called hock burn) and lesions that cause discomfort. These are caused when inactive birds spend a long time sitting in poorly managed damp litter. The RSPCA’s standards require naturally slower-growing and more active breeds along with more space and an environment that encourage birds to move around and be active.

Long journeys
Many chickens experience excessively long transport times without food and water which can contribute to the risk of injury or health problems, such as heat exhaustion. This can even lead to an increased chance of the birds dying before they reach the abattoir. The RSPCA’s standards set a maximum travel time of 4 hours (max time in crates is 8 hours).

You get what you pay for

It’s not just the chicken that suffers. Whilst cheap chicken might seem like a bargain these various welfare issues also mean poorer quality.

Fast growth rates have been found to contribute to conditions known as ‘wooden breast’ and ‘white stripping’ which is essentially dead muscle tissue as the birds grow. And practices like thinning have been linked with increased amounts of bacteria called campylobacter.

So, do you still think cheap chicken sounds like an appetising deal?

What can you do?

Yes, higher-welfare chicken costs more, but with good reason. That is why we believe in eating less, but eating better meat and dairy – taking care of animals and our pockets.

So, avoid the allure of those ‘two for a fiver’ chickens and instead trade-up to one higher-welfare chicken and trade-off the other for a plant-based alternative. For more trade-up and trade-off ideas, check out our eat less, eat better page.

RSPCA Assured chicken is available at Sainsbury’s, Co-op, Aldi, Lidl, Morrisons and other independent retailers. If you can’t find RSPCA Assured labelled chicken in your supermarket, you can use our Lobby your Supermarket tool to let them know that you want to buy RSPCA Assured in the future.

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